EL SEGUNDO, CA — One of the traditional benchmarks for a National Hockey League team is where they are in the standings at Christmas and for the Los Angeles Kings, who are at the bottom of the league standings, what more needs to be said? They’re ranked 31st in the 31-team NHL, still way, way out of playoff contention.
But now, they’re in the midst of a four-game winning streak going into today’s game against the Vegas Golden Knights (1:00 PM, Staples Center) and they’ve earned points in five out of their last six games and in six out of their last eight. In fact, they’ve earned a 6-3-2 record in December, good for 14 out of a possible 22 points, a .636 points percentage.
To be sure, the Kings have turned things around and are moving in a positive direction for the first time this season.
Improved special teams play has been one factor.
“A lot of our games have been close,” said interim head coach Willie Desjardins. “Special teams could’ve made the difference in a lot of games, if they went the other way. Both of the special teams are playing better right now.”
“It’s great to see the power play going,” added Desjardins. “That makes a difference for us, for sure. I think we’ve been playing quite a bit of good hockey. The game in Calgary [a 4-3 loss on November 30] wasn’t good and the game in Columbus [a 4-1 loss on December 13] wasn’t good. The Calgary game, we played the night before. The Columbus game, we just didn’t play good. Outside of that, we’ve had a lot of games where we were right there, but we didn’t capitalize on special teams. I think that’s the difference.”
“But then, it’s the little things. We’re going to the net a little bit better, our transition game is a little bit better. Saying that, there are still areas where we can get better at. I think it’s more just getting everybody on the same page. I think we’re finally starting to get that way.”
Veteran winger Dustin Brown pointed to individuals making a difference.
“I still think it’s an individual thing,” he said. “I think we’ve had a lot of players who’ve been playing a lot better for us, so our team has been a lot better.”
“Hockey is a funny game,” he added. “I’ve been on teams where we’ve won a lot of games that we weren’t deserving of winning and vice versa. I’m not saying that we deserved to win any of the games that we lost, but as of late, we’ve been playing a lot better and the results speak for themselves over the last little bit here.”
“A big part of it has been getting contributions every night without [center Anze] Kopitar getting a point or a goal or [defenseman Drew] Doughty dominating a game. We’ve had games that we’ve won where Kopi hasn’t had an impact and I look at that as a positive.”
Indeed, improved play of the supporting cast has been a major reason for the turnaround.
“We have to count on everyone to win hockey games, not just a few guys, to play well,” said Doughty. “I think, this winning streak that we’re on, everyone on our team has played well. We’ve had contributions from all four lines and all three defensive pairings.”
“We also have a lot of young guys in the lineup,” said Desjardins. “They’re just learning the league a bit better now. They’re finding their way. [Rookie defenseman Sean] Walker hasn’t played [at the NHL level] that much, I think we have three defensemen who totaled less than 80 NHL games between them. That’s not a lot of NHL games and when you’re that [early] in your NHL career, you can learn quicker, so maybe that’s what’s happening with [forwards Matt] Luff, [Austin] Wagner and [Michael] Amadio.”
“We have a lot of veteran guys out of our lineup, but I think our young guys have played really well for us lately,” Doughty noted. “All of that has been the biggest difference.”
A case in point is second-year NHL’er Alex Iafallo, who has been outstanding in recent weeks despite having his four-game scoring streak ended on December 27 in a 2-1 win over the Arizona Coyotes.
“He’s finding a little more consistency in his game, compared to last year, when he had spurts of some really good hockey,” said Brown. “But for a guy in just his first year in the league, he learned a lot. That’s probably the biggest thing for him. He’s got open eyes and open ears. He absorbs a lot and that’s all paying off for him now. I hope he can keep it going.”
“I just have to keep playing, finding the [open] areas and working hard,” said Iafallo. “Just trying to get more quality chances is what I’ve been doing. I’m just trying to stay hot, keep getting good shots to the net and using my teammates. It’s easy when everybody’s rolling together and playing well. It makes it easy for everybody because we’re all on the same page. That gives us momentum on every shift.”
Going a little deeper into the reasons the Kings have turned things around is that they’ve fixed the fundamental problems in their play that plagued them from the start of the season.
“We’ve talked a lot about it in the video room and [elsewhere] off the ice,” Iafallo noted. “Things are just kind of coming together. It starts in the defensive zone, cleaning things up there. As we clean up the defensive zone, we’re able to push pucks out—breakouts are easy. That makes everything easier on us. Puck support [good spacing that enables short passes while moving up ice on breakouts] is a huge key to our success.”
Breaking out of their zone is a part of the Kings play that is usually overlooked. But it is so critical to their game that when they can’t break out of their zone cleanly, they turn the puck over frequently and with regularity. At that point, everything goes down the drain very, very quickly.
“At times, some teams, their defense [is more aggressive in the Kings zone] and they use their sticks more,” said Iafallo. “We have to find ways to chip the puck out and get it to our centers. The shorter passes on breakout help us do that. It goes a long way. That pushes the defense back and gives us the chances we need to score. It’s huge.”
It’s not just the young players saying that, either.
“I’ve been saying that for ten years,” said Brown. “When we’re a good hockey team it’s because we’re passing well. If you make three bad passes in a row, each costs you a second—you’re three seconds slow. But if you make three good passes, it’s the other way around. You hit guys in stride, going in the right direction, you’re three seconds faster and you get scoring chances.”
“Spacing, timing [which enable short passes, leading to faster, quicker and clean breakouts], that’s been a lot better,” added Brown. “Our wall play has helped that, too. That’s been significantly better over the last few games. That hasn’t been great all year. That’s a big part of it. Wall play and passing are so critical.”
Another good sign for the Kings is that they’ve begun to find ways to win even when they aren’t at their best. That was the case on December 27 in their 2-1 win over the Coyotes.
In that game, the Kings came out strong in the first period. But they faltered pretty badly in the second period, when they spent almost the entire period in their own zone due to sloppy, turnover-laden play.
“We turned the puck over a lot in the second period and we didn’t get the puck deep [in the attacking zone] at all,” said Brown. “We played a lot of that period in the defensive zone. The difference is that we’ve been really good in our defensive zone of late. The mental breakdowns in the defensive zone that you saw earlier in the year, we’ve cleaned that up a lot.”
“We found a way to win,” added Brown. “That’s something a team needs to learn how to do. You’re not going to win every game, or there are games you shouldn’t win. Good teams find ways to win those. We’re in a better rhythm together, as a team.”
Add up all the reasons for the improved play, and now, although it is still highly unlikely that they’ll qualify for the playoffs (see below), the idea that they might earn an invite to the post-season party is no longer totally inconceivable—there is a minuscule bit of hope.
Since the 2010-11 season, Western Conference teams have made the playoffs earning less than 94 points in an 82-game regular season just once (91 in 2013-14) and only four times since 2006-07. As such, assuming that it would take 94 points to make the playoffs in the Western Conference this season, the Kings (15-20-3, 33 points), who have 44 games remaining, would need 61 more points to reach the 94-point mark and in order to do that, they would need to play at a .721 (points percentage) pace the rest of the way.
In short, the Kings would have to earn a minimum 24-7-13 record in their remaining games to reach the 94-point mark.
Maintaining a .721 pace is highly unlikely, to say the least. But stranger things have happened. Teams ahead of the Kings could falter badly, leaving the door open for them, should they continue their improved play. Although it is extremely faint, a glimmer of hope remains.
“We’re building confidence, both individually and as a team,” said Doughty. “Confidence is the biggest thing in hockey. If you’re rolling, individually, if you’re feeling it, you’re playing well, then, all of a sudden, your team comes together. You’re all playing with confidence, believing in each other and things just start clicking the right way.”
“Maybe we got sick of [playing poorly, losing], finally, after  games,” added Doughty. “I don’t know what the answer is. But we need to keep it going.”
Of course, keeping it going means that the Kings will move lower in the order for the 2019 NHL Draft, putting a big crimp in their ability to bring in new, young talent with the speed and skill that they’re short on throughout their system. But that’s not something the players and coaches should be concerned about. As such, there is indeed a faint glimmer of hope for them.
That said, winning enough to earn a .721 points percentage is pretty much a pipe dream. Nevertheless, if the Kings can continue to play well but still fall short, at least they’ll be fun to watch on most nights, unlike the massive train wreck they were for the first nine or ten weeks of the season.
LEAD PHOTO: Los Angeles Kings forward Dustin Brown, shown here during practice on December 27, 2018, at the Toyota Sports Center in El Segundo, California. Photo: Gann Matsuda/FrozenRoyalty.net.
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